When life takes your lemons… hold on… takes?


We’ve all heard the idea… get some lemons… make lemonade. (Ha ha… make some lemonade. Because of course it’s just that easy to make the best of any given situation.)

But what do you do when you make some plans for your lemons, and then life takes those?

A number of events have me thinking deeply about life and the future and all of the crazy dips and dives and twists and turns we each face. But I don’t want to head too deeply into the waters right now. Instead, I’ll start with a funny story. Then, we’ll kick around the economy and the president in considering these lemons.

(Do you know what a kookaburra is? Might be important. And, this story comes primarily from my mother. Not my sister. You should know that too. Ok… story time…)

My sister lives in Australia. And out in her yard, she has discovered, is a lemon tree.

This discovery was made when, a short time ago, a lemon began growing on the tree. So the tree itself may or may not be a fruit tree… may or may not be an actual lemon tree… but in the grandest tradition of waddling, quacking, and being yellow…

Lemon tree.

My understanding is a debate was soon bouncing around her home… three kids, one husband, and herself… what to do with a lemon.

And… well… what would you do with a single lemon? Use it with some seafood? Add it to a drink or two? Make some lemonade? Decisions… decisions… decisions.

It’s about ready to pick. It’s not going to last the day. In a few hours, my sister would head out there and collect her prize… the delightful lemon she had watched grow and considered for so long.

A few hours after last checking in, she looked outside, and… the lemon was gone!

Down on the ground, a kookaburra was playing with a slightly bruised, slightly splattered prize. It had… in all likelihood… knocked the precious fruit from the tree, pretty much literally from my sister’s fingertips.

Now the reality of the situation is simple… I didn’t present you with a story about my sister and a lemon to provide the most accurate and detailed telling of the events. Otherwise I would have done some research and contacted her about the lemon to find out what may really have transpired. Instead… it’s a set up. Her story is far too literal, and a bit funny. Her lemon wasn’t a bad lemon. It was simply to get you thinking of that fancy twist…

We’ve all heard the concept… when life is making things difficult and rough, make the best out of it and move on.

But I wonder what happens when life doesn’t offer you the possibilities of looking at the bright side. What happens when things are just bad? What happens when things just seem to keep getting worse?

Mercedes Mendez will likely never see this essay of mine. But this morning I find myself wondering what she thinks of her collection of lemons. (Link no longer active. Was with The Providence Journal.)

Mercedes started her own business in Rhode Island more than two decades ago. And I would imagine that when I tell you what her business is, you will see the beginnings of some of those lemons without much additional information.

Mercedes had a travel agency.

Yup… you got it… one of those lemons is the internet. (Didn’t take you long to do that.) People make their own travel plans now… clicking around, comparing prices, and making reservations without a thought of hopping in the car and visiting a local agent.

A friend of mine used to work as a travel agent. I can still recall slightly over ten years ago when she was on a roll about internet reservations and mercilessly slamming the system. One of her laughing points was former clients… ones that had left while telling her the cost was just too high compared to what they were finding on-line… calling her while on vacation because their bargain priced, so easy to make, internet and faceless reservations had problems and they couldn’t contact a sole from those companies to help them out.

(This story is about Mercedes though, and I need to get back on track.)

The internet is only one lemon though.

Another lemon for her? Families and individuals lacking discretionary funds for vacations. Hey… when the cost of a pizza or a gallon of milk goes up… when the gas tank on the car needs to be filled… when the credit card interest rates are rising… when the cost of daily life is becoming more expensive dollar by dollar, and also nickel by nickel… priorities take over. Fewer vacation travel plans… fewer clients for a travel agency.

Our girl can make a few pitchers of lemonade out of these ingredients.

Thing is… see... Mercedes got a few more lemons.

Even as the internet was probably pulling away regular clients and walk-in business…

Even as the belt-tightening households turned to day trips… local excursions… a focus on affording the bills at home and less on an adventure…

Other entities began knocking on her business door, turning to her so she could give what they deemed to be her fair share to the difficulties we are all facing. Ok… those are my words… but we’ve all heard politicians talking about getting through this together, and times being hard and filled with sacrifice, and costs rising. Right?

Here’s a problem though… and I’ll get away from Mercedes for just a second to give you an example. When car companies can make more fuel efficient vehicles, why don’t they? There’s a lot to the answer that addresses that question. A lot of investigation into government regulations or the cost of research and development or blah-blah-blah. But the reality is… as always seems to be the case… follow the money.

We’re hearing in the past few days that there may be moves to increase required fuel efficiency levels for companies. I’m more than a bit skeptical though.

Do any of you really believe that gas companies whole-heartedly want to find answers so we stop buying gas?

Do any of you really believe politicians are voting purely on the best interests of those that elected them, when companies are donating millions to their individual campaign funds?

Honestly. Give it a few minutes and consider it. Sure… in their investigations… one of these companies might just develop a fuel source of the future. Might. But if you sell gas… and make your money selling gas… well, two ideas, you tell me: (1) Are you dedicating your resources to alternative fuels because you want to kill your golden goose? Or, (2) are you investigating alternative fuels in case someone else kills your golden goose?

What I am saying is simple. People say things all the time that they don’t really mean. They know what they are supposed to say… public relations and political correctness and so on. That doesn’t mean what they say is actually what they mean… feel… believe. (Or… did you hear something that I didn’t about members of Congress having their medical plans overhauled when the new health care was voted on?)

Back to Mercedes and her lemons. Two quotes from the article…

“The city needs to collect at least $307 million from taxes to maintain services and pay its planned expenses this fiscal year, which began July 1. Mayor Angel Taveras also inherited a $110-million structural deficit, which he plans to eradicate with a ‘shared sacrifice’ approach.”

“Mendez says she recovered from difficult economic cycles before, but even with ‘a strong faith,’ she says, ‘There’s no hope. When is it going to end?...’ Politicians and all their taxes are further destroying small business when ‘we’re the ones who support the economy,’ she said.”

Look… I am not trying to say that government shouldn’t be exploring ways to raise revenue and cut expenses, even when that means increased costs and reduced service levels. The concept of a shared pain is understood. What I am saying is that this isn’t some new thing. Most people I know have been fighting reduced incomes and increasing bills for years… and many have been in pain for a while.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Most of you have heard that the United States was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s. And the big question becomes… so what?

Standard & Poor’s is a company that researches and analyzes financial areas, in particular stocks and bonds. Without going too deeply into the difference between AAA (where the United States was rated) and AA+ (where the United States now is rated) and anything like CCC (which has nothing to do with the United States, but is another rating from Standard & Poor’s)… the big thing to know is this:

Ratings essentially reflect reliability and stability. The higher (or stronger) the rating, the more the financial commitment is seen as secure and, effectively, risk free.

Several people are critical of the reduction Standard & Poor’s gave the United States on August 5, 2011. And, several are critical of Standard & Poor’s in general, as well as other companies that offer similar services and ratings.

(In fact… funny side note… China, one of the main critics of US policy in this whole ball of fun, has a lower rating than the United States. I know… great stuff.)

If you want to look at AAA and AA+, and wonder what that might mean to you since both grades seem quite good, you wouldn’t be alone. What you really need to grasp is simple enough: The finances of America are not viewed today as being as reliable and stable as they were a week ago. (At least by how we were rated on those particular past days.) And while Standard & Poor’s (and other companies) may not be the indicator you want to use, the reality is that countries around the world are wondering about that reliable and stable as always concept.

Amazingly (well, perhaps amazingly)… AAA… AA+… I don’t know that the situation of the rating is the big thing. And I don’t know if the trustworthiness of the messenger matters. Dad and I exchanged some e-mails recently, and I thought I’d share some of it with you. Sort of more lemony-fresh material for your consideration as we head to wrapping this effort up.

I have left this material fairly intact to the way the e-mails went, both in content and order of being sent. Look for Dad in blue and me in red. (For no particular reason other than I thought blue and red would work nicely.) Keep in mind it isn’t supposed to fit into some particular flow, and it isn’t supposed to explain everything mentioned.

Still 15 months to go but he has got to do something or he is cooked. What has happened tonight is a stain on the USA and his Presidency. He is the first President to ever have the bond rating lowered.

Thing is… who is running against him? Palin? Because as of right now, she’s as good as anyone the Republicans have. (And, the only one to kind of stay on the outside so far.)

You got it. I saw a professor from Virginia, Larry Sabato, on yesterday. He said that Obama is trailing in 6 of 10 states he carried before and is now almost tied in the other 4. He is losing in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, and we all know you have to win two of those three. He cannot win today according to him but he said we don't know who is going to run against Obama and that is how Obama can still win.

Yup… who the heck is he losing to? Numbers and predictions today mean very little to me. Remember, predictions in 2008 about who would win really didn’t even have Obama running as the official nominee until five months before the election. Fifteen months before that election, ahead of the primaries, Obama wasn’t known in most homes across the country and was on the fringes of not even being a viable candidate. In the past twenty years we’ve heard that the first George Bush was unbeatable, the second George Bush couldn’t win (either time), and that Bob Dole was ready to take charge in America.

I went around to a few web sites with some international flavor, and the reality seems two-fold.

First, the true impact of the reduction can’t be predicted just yet. The cry for media reaction demands people say right now they know what will happen, but they don’t. People aren’t taking loans out yet under the rating reduction, and it honestly may not affect the everyday lives of people all that much. (Absolutely it’s true it likely raises rates, but rates move all the time. This isn’t some 10% swing we’re talking about where mortgages will be at 18% and car loans near 24%. Instead of car loans and mortgages (most of which people get at fixed rates these days and rarely variable), I’d be more concerned right now that: (1) It sounds like another reduction of the US rating could happen in about twelve to fifteen months. And, (2) what will this do to the banks and rates on things like credit cards or any interest rates, which are already insanely flipping around?)

Second, the international scene… where Obama was so praised and hailed as a breath of fresh air and step in the direction of American progress… is making fun of this and calling it a black eye. Personally… the same way most people have zero clue about 401k investing and stuff like that… I think most people have no clue what a lowered rating actually means. And even if they read articles with fancy titles like “The US rating lowered: what it means to you” they still will have no idea what it means to them. But… in my typical, naïve, just giving it a sniff test approach… we are two-plus years into Obama’s “recovery” (meaning his term in office), and if international communities are shaking their heads people don’t need to understand it. That’s bad news.

Here’s something for you… forget the lower rating. Did you hear the job news today? Anyone believe the hundred-thousand-plus are good jobs? Most places I know were predicting way below that figure, some less than half of what was announced. And, of course, sniff test cynic I am, all I can recall is last year when the temporary census job numbers were included in rising employment figures. All I keep seeing is reports about companies refusing to investigate growth or mass hirings, often at least noting that the unpredictability of government actions (taxes, safety and other regulations, medical costs) are part of the reason. And, debt deal fun the latest, the government goes right out and proves that the companies not acting are looking pretty sensible for not trusting the government. Again, lowered rating… I get it can hurt… I’m more concerned about everything else swirling in the tub around that.

I said the same thing to Mom, somebody inserted numbers or played with them. The estimate I saw was that they would not hit their hoped for 85,000 and that was as late as 8pm Thursday night. Sure seemed funny that they beat it and by so much.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So… financial mess… looks like we’ve still got one.

About two years ago, it was a medical debate. I wrote an article called “Put health care reform on hold… because Obama’s new Washington can’t be trusted to do it right”… and here’s part of what I said about Washington back then:

“Because this has turned into a game of push and shove. Who can yell the loudest… who can defend positions they don’t seem to understand, but don’t want to look like a fool by changing their mind (and looking exactly like a fool when they do)… and all sorts of other assorted hilarities and oddities. We’ve got members of Congress yelling at the public… we’ve got the public yelling at members of Congress. And nothing is getting done. Welcome to the new Washington. (Same as the old Washington.)”

I also said:

“And don’t kid yourself. Washington hasn’t really changed… not yet anyway. This is the same finger-pointing, back-biting, positioning oneself for the future at the risk of the present politics we’ve been given over and over and over again. So as our country had so many people celebrating the arrival of change… it appears to me those people conveniently are forgetting that change is more than a word, it requires actual action and, you know, change… perhaps this health care subject may finally set people off enough to toss all of these people out and really bring about a new Washington.”

And here is what I said about our president:

“…I don’t mind Barack Obama… the person. (I hate resorting to the easy joke, but so be it. He strikes me as the kind of guy you’d like to meet up with for a beer. I know… I know… but look for the imagery in the sentiment and not the history.) He’s well spoken, incredibly personable, and has a wide and diverse range of interests and passions. Long story short, I find him to be real and authentic in an arena far too often filled with fake and created personas. But understand, again, that is as a person. As a president I believe that so far he has demonstrated an amazing lack of experience and incredibly flawed reasoning.”

Tell me the truth… what have you seen since 2009? That was when I offered that I saw things as “an amazing lack of experience and incredibly flawed reasoning” from our president. Do recent events show a take charge, can do, hope is turning to reality leadership in Washington? (And keep in mind… I didn’t care what political party is involved. In that article I said about Washington as a complete political entity: “Honestly… it’s amazing how incompetent the whole group looks.”)


Check out what Margery Eagan had to say about President Obama on Tuesday, August 9, 2011 (Boston Herald link, no longer active):

“I don’t believe he’s lying. I do think he’s rudderless and scared, which makes me petrified.”

Early in 2010, I had a funny take on President Obama and Las Vegas:

“Let’s keep in mind… this isn’t the first time Obama has said something he later regretted. If it was, you might be even more willing to let it slide and consider it nothing more than a crazy oops. But ask Special Olympics… ask police officers in Massachusetts… ask travel and tourism representatives in Las Vegas if they believe Obama is aware of what he’s saying (or if he’s learned his lessons about it from past errors).”

History is repeating itself folks.

Don’t believe me? Ok… here’s one from April of 2010

“A simple, basic approach… without much digging or research… says that the money has to come from some place. It could be door number one… door number two… or door number three. The one thing that’s certain in my mind though is that the government… in claiming we’re going to save money doing this… simply hasn’t revealed which door involves us reaching for our wallets.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So where are we? With our lemons, that is…

Not all lemons are bad. Some work wonderfully with scallops or shrimp, and can make or add to a tasty and refreshing beverage. By the same concept… change is not always bad. It can lead to new things… new experiences… and positive results.

Challenging? Can be. Unexpected? Often, yes. Difficult? Sure.

But not always bad.

The idea of retelling the Mercedes story… where in the words and thoughts of the article and also through my own interpretation of conditions… was for us to explore scenarios where the lemon-situation couldn’t even be considered. There was no positive spin… there was no challenge or recovery option… there wasn’t a chance to make lemonade. The kookaburra had swept through before the lemon could even be picked.

What happens when those taking away the lemons refuse to acknowledge the missing lemons… instead looking to blame others for why the lemons are missing?

What happens when life gives you lemons… and then takes those lemons away?


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com